Motherhood in Conflict: Colleen’s Story

In northern Uganda, many mothers have lived through armed conflict. Some gave birth in a time when murder, abduction, mutilation and rape were common practices. It was a time when child soldiers were forced to kill loved ones. What would it be like to become and be a mother in this context?

Colleen* is one of the women I grew very close to during my time volunteering in a counselling centre in Northern Uganda. Like Achola, she told me about her experiences of motherhood during and after the war.

Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone

I visited Colleen at her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. The region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency. There were great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.

Colleen told me that she was abducted by rebels from the LRA when she was only 15. She escaped them by hiding in the open stem of a bush. Colleen told me that she became a mother at the same time as losing both of her parents, who were killed by the rebels. She spoke about how hard it was to flee from the rebels night after night, while ensuring the safety of her siblings and her baby.

Colleen’s experiences of the war have been debilitating, and she is still recovering. Though the war ended more than a decade ago, Colleen continues to be in emotional and physical pain. She tells me:

“When I was with my baby hiding in the bush, somebody stepped on my waist. It affected my waist so much up to date. Whenever I laugh, I could just fall unconscious for some minutes. It is still painful.”

What is very striking about Colleen’s story is that it demonstrates that life after war can still be filled with terror. For Colleen, the days of violence are not over.

‘Post-Conflict’ Motherhood

Just after Colleen had been abducted by the rebels, she was married at 16 to her current husband. The day I spoke with her, he was out working on nearby land. Colleen leaned towards me and whispered in my ear:

“I never wanted to marry him, my brothers forced me to marry him cause they needed money and animals [bride price] so that they can marry their wives.”

The practice of bride price is one of many practices that highlight the negative effects of poverty and patriarchy on women’s wellbeing.

The women I worked with told me that in their communities, girls are usually seen as a commodity by both their natal family and their new husband. As soon as a girl is born, she is a source of income for her family. This puts girls and young women at great risk of being forced into early or childhood marriage. This is exactly what happened to Colleen.

Colleen is now in an unhappy and abusive marriage. The years of grabbing her children and running into the bush have not been forgotten. These days, however, when she runs with her children it is not to escape the rebels, but the violence of her husband.

For Colleen, instead of a safe place, her home is a place of terror.

The end of the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army was supposedly meant to be time of peace. For many women, however, peace-time violence continues to disrupt and negatively influence their well-being.

Colleen’s Way Forward

Though Colleen’s daily life is characterized by the violent relationship with her husband, it does not define her. Colleen experiences a lot of joy in the relationship with her children, and with her female friends who she meets in her neighbourhood and in the local counselling centre. The women often sing and dance together:

“During the rebel time there was no music, now there is music and we can dance and feel better. I dance! … I always dance and listen [to music] because it is telling me about peace, if it is gospel it is counselling me also. There are songs which you listen to and it teaches you about peace.”

Community groups, the church, gospel songs and the local counselling centre are all crucial for Colleen’s recovery. We need to acknowledge the importance of creativity and body work in psycho-social and mental health support. For Colleen, dancing and singing is not only simply enjoyable, it also offers a way of healing.  

*Colleen is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Motherhood in Conflict: Achola’s Story

“Women, in short, lack essential support for leading lives that are fully human. This lack of support is frequently caused by their being women.”
– Martha Nussbaum

Across the globe, mothers face difficulties in relation to their experiences of motherhood and well-being. Many of these are recognizable across countries and cultures.

Becoming and being a mother in the context of a conflict lasting over two decades, however, is different. For these women, their highly dangerous situation means daily care of her children becomes a matter of life and death. This was, and arguably still is, the case for many of the women in northern Uganda.

Before I went to volunteer in a women’s counselling centre in Uganda in 2018, I had prepared myself appropriately. Or so I thought. I watched documentaries on the government’s conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. I read loads of newspaper interviews, academic articles and NGO reports, and I spoke with professionals in the field.

All of my preparation, however, still came nowhere near to a full picture of what womanhood, and particularly motherhood, during and after war looks like.

Becoming a Mother in a Conflict Zone

During times of war, stories of motherhood – and female experience in general – have been excluded and unexplored. It is time this silence, often resulting from gender blindness, is broken.

To understand maternal well-being in a post-war context, we must realize what women had to deal with specific to their role as a mother.

The following story was told to me by Achola*. Achola is a 54 year old widow, with 8 children. I visited her home in rural Ngetta, close to the city of Lira in the northern part of Uganda. This region has been badly affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency, which had great consequences for all, and especially for pregnant women and mothers.

Pregnancy can be a challenging time for women anywhere in the world, and especially for women in impoverished regions.

The challenges Achola faced just became bigger and bigger after giving birth. Only two days post-birth, she had to run to a nearby mountain to find safety from the rebels. Her husband ran in a different direction and so she sat alone with their new-born baby.

“We were sleeping in the hut when the rebels came in 2002. I had a baby child and heard a gunshot. I came out and ran into the bush. The child was only two days old. We were hiding at a swamp and throughout it all the body was shaking.”

With no clean toilets, nothing to withhold the bleeding, no painkillers, no food, no emotional support, fear overtook Achola. At this point, she thought about killing her new-born baby.

“I felt like killing the baby I have so that I am left alone. Because I felt I was going to die, the rebel was going to kill me. There were no merits, that was just the sadness showing. I was full of sadness, and the feeling came from fear. Fear was the one thing making me think that … It was so painful, it was so painful in my heart.”

Like all the other families in the area, Achola had to run away from home every few nights for months in a row.

Hiding in the bush, however, came with great dangers and consequences – 5 tombs next to Achola’s hut are a painful and visual reminder of this.

“Those are the bodies of the children … I cannot recall when those children died. I gave birth to thirteen children, now there are eight … they could not even sit, they could not even crawl.

It happened as a result of running to the bush with these children, the mosquitos bit us in the bush and gave them malaria, then that child dies later on like that.”

Achola’s Way Forward

Achola suffered tremendous losses during the war. She tells me that she “cried and cried and cried for many years.” Today, however, she says: “I am feeling better and better slowly, it is not like in the past. I can laugh.

The community counselling centre, run by Ugandan psychologist and trauma specialist Sister Florence, has helped a lot: “I am now recovering from these problems and this pain … I am now getting energy and feeling better.”

Reconnecting with her body has helped Achola in overcoming some of her struggles. Besides the counselling centre, the church is a major source of social support for her. The word of God, according to Achola, is a form of counselling: “I am always counselled from there [church] by the word of God. When I’m in problem and I hear the word of God I always feel better.”

By sharing this story and trying to understand the complexity of post-conflict issues, we can move on from merely reading narratives of pain and loss.

Instead, we can focus on what helps women live more fulfilling lives after conflict – and how we can support them in their journey.

*Achola is a pseudonym. The image accompanying this article does not depict the woman who told this story.

Mental Health Treatment & Gender Equality in Uganda

Conflict, poverty and instances of social injustice can provide the context within which a person develops mental health issues. And yet, while studying to become a creative/psychomotor therapist, I learned very little about this.

I didn’t question it at the time, because mental health is a personal issue, right? My time in a counselling centre in Uganda last summer showed me that the answer to this question is, in fact, a clear no.

I volunteered as a psychomotor therapist in the Bishop Asili Counselling, Rehabilitation and Community Centre in Ngetta, northern Uganda. The local population living here suffered badly during the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency.

More than a decade after the end of the war, I came to Uganda with a stack of books on trauma and post-traumatic stress, ready to do creative therapeutic interventions that might help women cope with their war-time experiences.

Very quickly, it became clear to me that the conditions these women lived in asked for something different. Something more.

Sister Florence, an Ugandan psychologist who founded and runs the counselling centre, reminded me that next to their history of war, “there are so many [other] sources of trauma, so many, so many, so many”.

Women in Ngetta face many challenges. The patriarchal context leaves women with few, to zero, rights.

They have no right to land or any kind of ownership, and the moment a woman marries, her new husband acquires rights over her sexuality and reproductive ability.

Ellen, one of the women I worked with in the counselling centre, described the patriarchal culture: “I was now in the hands of my husband and I was now under authority of my husband. I need to respect him and do everything he tells me.”

Her words reflect the complex power dynamics and hegemonic masculinity that undermine women’s social status and power. On top of this, many women struggle to feed their families every day, while often their husbands drink away the little money there is. Other women have lived through (often multiple) more recent traumatic events, such as emotional and physical abuse by a husband or brother.

It made me wonder how much help my therapeutic interventions focused on (individual) war-trauma could be.

Recognizing the unequal social position of women, I needed to have a clear feminist ideology underlying my therapy. This meant focusing on women’s social position and equality.

Our sessions were related to resilience, visibility and communication, grounding techniques, personal boundaries, and more. Work related to the strive for equality for women was essential. However, paying attention to – and ultimately challenging – violent and unjust structures is not often included in mental health interventions in the Global South.

The importance of women’s mental health for general health is widely recognized. Mental health in international contexts is slowly becoming more of an acknowledged topic within the field of international development. This is really good news, especially considering the fact that only a small minority of the 450 million people suffering from mental or behavioural disorders worldwide receive treatment.

In 2013, the World Health Organization published their Mental Health Action Plan: 2013-2020. It is an ambitious action plan that understands ‘the essential role of mental health in achieving health for all people’. Global Mental Health (GMH) is thus an emergent topic in which more and more people are currently working. However, with this renewed focus on mental health, many critiques have emerged, some of them accusing GMH of being a colonial practice.

GMH is accused of globally enforcing biomedical systems, which are characteristic of the Global North’s approach to health. The biomedical framework locates illness, including mental illness, within a person. Though psychological and social principles are sometimes taken into account, biological variables are the most central.

Issues of social injustice and structural violence (such as poverty, conflict, sexism, racism) are not taken into account, despite their significant impact on women’s mental health.

Very important work is being done in the field of GMH. Organizations like SOS Children’s Villages or Action for Child Trauma International are great examples of a rights-based approach to trauma.

We must be careful to avoid new forms of imperialism in which the Global North enforces its biomedical approach to health on all cultures. We should work towards locally-informed care which approaches mental health not as an individual issue, but as something to be addressed on personal, community, national and global levels.

Mental health should be seen as a social issue.

This would allow us to challenge discriminating structures, both globally and nationally, while also focusing on community and personal struggles.

In order to achieve mental health for all, there is an essential role for work towards an equal world, and this work is should be integrated in the field of Global Mental Health.